An introduction to: Lawrence Lek
We caught up with Lawrence Lek in Glasgow last December as his work was taking shape and asked him about his latest project for Glasgow International.
How would you describe your new project?
First of all, I would say, what I do is make videos and video games about fictional scenarios that are critical of politics or social structures or a place – but also celebrate it. I’m making a fictional video game about the QE2, which was built in Glasgow, and how it might be coming back to be turned into an extension for the Glasgow School of Art.
I’m taking this symbol of industry and turning it into this institution for art. It’s playing on ideas about regeneration and architecture and how they’re used as tools to shape the city, both as an aspirational thing and as a slightly scary top-down imposed kind of structure as well.
How did this concept of the QE2 becoming a permanent structure in Glasgow come about?
When I came here I realised a lot of the great architecture and buildings came from the philanthropists and industrialists who invested back into the city. For example, the Art School site was donated about 100 years ago and now it’s become a major landmark.
So I was thinking about the idea of urban regeneration, how Glasgow is becoming this new European capital. But I want to reflect on the symbol of the old industry and how the nature of that industry has changed into a creative culture. This vessel is also slightly tragic in a way. It’s the end of the life of this vessel, but it’s also a symbol of the city in some ways. That’s also a symbol of this weird luxury/capitalist culture – the whole life of being on a cruise that doesn’t quite exist anymore, especially for an artist like me.
It’s kind of my fantasy that the world of capital could be changed in to an art school essentially. What if the QE2 could be changed from this luxury cruise liner into an Art School? It’s talking about many of the similar issues I’ve seen in Glasgow, the idea of culturally-led regeneration, which is definitely a double-edged sword. Part of the reason I came in August, and coming now, is to get a feel for how art is embedded in the city, which is very interesting. The way that it’s mixed into the urban context. For example, the CCA and Glasgow School of Art are quite close to each other in such a small area that I hadn’t really expected, so it’s somehow really intimate.
Also, the idea that it’s the final voyage of the ship, there’s also this art historical reference to it, for example Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire – that sailing ship was being tugged by steam boat so it’s like the age of steam taking over the age of sail, so in a way this is like the age of cultural capital taking over the age of industrialism somehow.
How important is it to be site-specific to your projects?
Obviously I’m an artist and I’m interested in making art but the idea of being site specific is really important to me. I just wanted to get a feel for the city basically and embed that within the work as well. That’s all to do with Glasgow.
A lot of my inspiration is quite simply a fascination with how cities transform, and that refers to a lot of different ideas about how landscape painting became cityscape painting essentially to present the grandeur of cities. So there’s that romantic element that’s in there as well. I can’t speak for a viewer but I hope it’s kind of open in those respects.
Do you see Glasgow’s industrial past as romanticised at all?
It’s easy to romanticise the past definitely through the sense of nostalgia, but it probably wasn’t that great to be honest. It was heavy industry, heavy polluting.
But I think because it’s in living memory as well that it’s part of the myth of Glasgow, this kind of industrial heart, as far as I know. I guess there’s a lot of pride in that, but how much of it is actually based on reality versus just nostalgia is quite interesting.
There’s a whole kind of romantic thing about ruins and that’s one thing I really want to contrast. The romanticism of ruins versus the utopianism of new architecture. It’s a really interesting divide.
There’s quite a lot of decadence associated with the QE2 isn’t there? And the flip side of decadence is poverty and hard labour.
Yes, there’s an element of tragedy and comedy to it as well. I was talking to my friend who used to play on cruise ships for example, and there really is this upstairs, downstairs kind of thing. Not even talking about the people who make the ship and the people who actually cruise on it. That’s a theme that I’ve dealt with in my work before. The idea of luxury and the people who create it.
Do you think the medium of video opens up your work, and the complex themes you’re dealing with, to a bigger audience and makes is more accessible to people?
Absolutely, the fact that I’m taking all these critical, romantic or artistic issues and placing them in a visual medium, which is basically a pop medium, it does open it up because first there’s the interactive element to it. Most video games are built on the idea of the premise of fantasy anyway. Either your scenarios are really different or you have super powers etc. Then obviously there’s the interactive element where it’s not just a passive object or film to be watched but it’s something that’s engaging in a different way.
I think that’s the benefit of new media really. The difficulty of new media is placing it within an art historical context, but no one cares about that really unless you’re really well-versed as an art lover.